Victory Over Canada Sends Mexico Back to World Cup

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Is there any unit with more pride, ego, sense of drama and courage than the Mexican national soccer team?

Fighting and clawing against a stubborn Canadian team, Mexico avenged 15 years of soccer humiliation by beating Canada, 2-1, and becoming the first team other than the automatic qualifiers--Germany and the United States--to earn a berth for next summer's World Cup.

The last time Mexico advanced to the World Cup through qualifying was 1976. In 1982 the Mexican national team was prevented from qualifying by Honduras. In 1986 Mexico qualified for the World Cup as the host country and had its best showing ever. Bora Milutinovic, now the U.S. national coach, led Mexico to the quarterfinals.

But the lasting and bitter memory for Mexico has been its disqualification from the 1990 World Cup for using overage players in a youth championship. It is generally accepted that Mexico's absence from the regional qualifying opened the door for the United States to go to its first World Cup in 40 years. Sunday's victory and return to the World Cup gives Mexico national joy that is almost incalculable.

"Today, Mexico is very happy," said Francisco Cruz, who scored the winning goal. "Mexico has been waiting for this for so long."

On a sunny and mild day, the Canadians treated Mexico more hospitably than they had been treated when they lost, 4-0, at jammed Azteca Stadium in Mexico City last month. A hostile crowd of 130,000 jeered and whistled the Canadians, but the combination of suffocating smog and high altitude proved to be the stronger foe.

Sunday's match was picnic-like by contrast. The small wooden stadium on the University of Toronto campus was a small swath of green nestled into the looming skyline of the city.

For Mexico, which espouses its conspiracy theory to all who will listen, there was an echo of an earlier slight during the playing of its national anthem Sunday.

The background: Mexico played at El Salvador in a qualifying match April 4, and the Salvadorans said they forgot to play the Mexican national anthem. Mexico considered the omission less an oversight than national slight.

Sunday, their anthem was played, but in the condensed version that is standard at all international sporting events. Mexico's fans were unfazed. When the music on the public address system stopped, they sang the rest of the anthem as the Mexican team stood at attention.

Honduras was less than welcoming, too. A week ago in a qualifying match at Tegucigalpa, the Mexican team was besieged in its hotel. Honduran fans camped outside the team hotel, honking horns, playing loud music and training high-power lights on the windows.

When the Honduran team ran behind the practice schedule and Mexico had to take the field later than scheduled, the stadium crew informed the Mexicans their time was up. When the team refused to leave, the sprinkler system was turned on.

Another in a series of handicaps was the absence from the bench Sunday of Mexico's coach, Miguel Mejia Baron, who was ejected from the game against Honduras. Also sitting out the one-game suspension after accumulating two yellow cards were star midfielder Alberto Garcia Aspe and forward Luis Garcia. "Everything is always against Mexico," said the game's star, Hugo Sanchez. "But we fight, we always fight."

Canada--which can still reach World Cup through play against Australia, New Zealand and two South American teams--made it a fight by outplaying Mexico in the first half. Alex Bunbury scored on a header off Mike Sweeney's free kick. But Sanchez, who at 34 has played on two World Cup teams, tied the game in the 34th minute on a screened shot that Canadian goalkeeper Craig Forrest never saw. As is his habit, Sanchez executed a front flip after the goal.

During halftime, the sellout crowd of 19,200 at Varsity Stadium saw Milutinovic wade through the throng of Mexican fans. Still wildly popular in Mexico, Milutinovic joined in the noisy, horn-blowing, flag-waving revelry.

The second half was characterized by rough play. At one point five yellow cards were handed out. But as Canada took chances and pushed its players forward, Mexico repeatedly countered with an outnumbered attack.

Cruz's goal in the 85th minute was a crusher for Canada and redemption for Mexico. When the game was over and their place in the World Cup assured, the Mexican team raced around the stadium with the national flag streaming behind, celebrating with fans who danced and beat drums in the stands. In the jubilant and chaotic Mexican locker room, champagne and tears flowed equally.

"You cannot express what this means for Mexico," Sanchez said, above the din. "For us, soccer is everything, everything. We are so proud."

Outside, in the concrete canyons of Toronto's financial district, horns and bells and drums echoed. The chant of "Mexico, Mexico" rang out. They were back.

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